Illustration of a tree containing symbols of world faiths

This is the last of three posts on ‘religion’. Why are there different religions?

Christianity is one, Hinduism is another, all the religions are different from each other, only one of them at most can be true, so you can’t belong to two at once. This arrangement is not self-evident. It is another product of modern European conflicts.

It is well known that neither Confucius nor Buddha nor Jesus intended to set up a new religion. John’s gospel has a lot of harsh words for ‘the Jews’, but the word he uses means the people of the province called Judaea. An up to date translation might be ‘the Israelis’.

The most common candidate for a pre-modern deliberate founder of a new religion is Mohammed. However it is disputed. I don’t read Arabic and I’m following Nongbri.[1] A lot depends on how you translate early texts. The word ‘islam’ is Arabic for ‘submission’. ‘Muslim’ is Arabic for a person who has submitted. Mohammed and his followers spent a lot of time fighting wars, and usually won. If Mohammed’s soldiers attack you and you lose, what do you do? You submit. Some texts in the Qur’an can be translated either way. Sura 3:52 reports the words of some followers of Jesus. According to one translator they said ‘We are Muslims’. According to a different translator they said ‘We submit’. Because ‘islam’ means submission, either is a legitimate translation. This does not mean the meaning of the text is unclear. Clearly it can be translated either way. We think the two meanings are completely different. When the text was written, the distinction was not being made.

If before modern times people did not think in terms of different religions, how did they think? The standard medieval understanding was proposed by the fourth century Christian Eusebius. He knew that Christians, Jews, Greeks and Persians all had their own traditions of worship, and if the concept had been available he might have described them as different religions. Instead he described them as different nations. This was not a problem for Jews, Greeks and Persians, but how could he think of Christians as a nation? The way he explained it was that the oldest nation on earth was the Hebrews, with their scriptures foretelling Christ. Other nations derived from them, and everybody except the Christians had abandoned the worship of the Hebrew God at some stage. This was the standard European interpretation throughout the Middle Ages.

The advantage of this theory was that it did not create hard and fast divisions between one religion and another: everybody who was not an orthodox Christian was a Christian heretic of some sort or other. The disadvantage was that it meant everybody who was not an orthodox Christian was rebelling against Christ. This provided an excuse to attack them.

The story of St Josaphat illustrates the fluidity that prevailed before the boundaries between ‘religions’ were established. In the later Middle Ages western Christians loved stories of saints and their miracles. One of the most popular was the story of Barlaam and Josaphat. Before the invention of printing these stories were passed on by word of mouth so different versions developed. According to the most popular western version Josaphat was the son of a king somewhere far to the east. Barlaam was a monk who converted Josaphat to Christianity. Josaphat became an ideal Christian king. Later he gave it all up to become a monk. There is a reference to this story in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Modern scholars believe that some medieval saints probably never existed. In the case of St Josaphat, however, scholars have traced the development of the story, with the help of newly discovered manuscripts, right back to a person we know about from other sources. So he really did exist.

Josaphat is the Latin version of the saint’s name. It was translated from Greek, where his name is Ioasaph. It was translated into Greek around the year 1000 from a Georgian version. The Georgian version was translated from Arabic, where the name is a bit different again, Yudasaf. In Arabic the letters for ‘y’ and ‘b’ look very similar. Earlier Arabic texts give the name as Budasaf. The Arabic was in turn a translation from Sanskrit, where the name is Bodhisattva. In this way, by putting together the manuscripts scholars have managed to trace the story back to its origin: the eastern prince Josaphat, officially canonised as a Christian saint by Pope Gregory VIII in 1580, was in fact Buddha.

This means that the story of this holy man had spread from country to country, with changes along the way, from people we now call Buddhists to people we now call Hindus, to people we now call Muslims and to people we now call Christians. This happened before people had adopted the attitude ‘He’s a Buddhist and I belong to a different religion so I can’t recognise him as a holy man’. Eastern Orthodox Christians borrowed the story from Muslims round about the time when, in another part of the world, Christians and Muslims were butchering each other in the Crusades.

Why did we divide the world up into separate religions? Because of the European wars of religion. To establish peace after the wars, John Locke and others defined ‘religion’ as a private set of other-worldly beliefs about God and life after death. Thereafter Europeans went round the world discovering new peoples, and expected everybody’s beliefs about gods to be equally private, equally other-worldly and equally contentious. The historian Peter Harrison describes this as ‘the projection of Christian disunity onto the world’.[2] Europeans then divided up the world accordingly. In 1787 they invented the word ‘Hinduism’ to describe the religion of India. In 1801 they invented the word ‘Buddhism’.

A good illustration of this European blindness is Max Müller’s account of the Parsis. Müller was a nineteenth century anthropologist and the Parsis are the followers of Zoroaster. He wrote that the Parsi priests

would have to admit that they cannot understand one word of the sacred writings in which they profess to believe… A Parsi, in fact, hardly knows what  his faith is. The Zend-Avesta is to him a sealed book.[3]

In other words, Müller presupposed that any tradition that talked about God must be committed to a set of beliefs enshrined in sacred texts.

This division of the world into different ‘religions’ left a problem for European Christians. Is Christianity just one religion among many, or is it the one and only true religion? Some Christians have invested a lot of effort into showing how Christianity is superior to all the others. The usual approach is to emphasise beliefs which are specifically about Jesus – either his resurrection or his status as divine.

But should we busy ourselves drawing dividing lines between Christians and others, or should we be rubbing them out?

[1] Nongbri, B, Before Religion, Yale University Press, 2013, p. 59. Most of the information in this post comes from this book.
[2] Harrison, Peter, “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 174, quoted inNongbri, Before Religion, p. 86.
[3] Müller, M, Chips from a German Workshop, 1.170-171, quoted in Nongbri, Before Religion, p. 112.